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The Sonia Gandhi connection
Rarely has the appointment of a principal secretary to the prime minister generated so much interest, or aroused such great expectations, as that of Pulok Chatterji. This Gandhi family loyalist from the 1974 batch of the IAS slips into the hot seat in October this year to take up what is probably the most challenging assignment of his career.
The appointment comes at a time when the gulf between Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Congress president Sonia Gandhi is at its widest. Chatterji's main task will be to bridge that gap and give UPA 2 the political coherence that's been missing almost from the very beginning when it confounded pundits by winning a second successive term in 2009.
The presence of a Gandhi family loyalist in the PMO has acquired urgency in view of Sonia's ill health. With the Congress president away in the US for a surgery that will probably keep her out of action for some time, Chatterji's role as an interlocutor between government and party becomes critical.
It's not only a formidable brief;the circumstances too are most unusual. Historically, the principal secretary has been a confidante of the PM, handpicked by the latter to head his office, smooth out any ruffles and function as the chief interface between the PM and his cabinet and political colleagues. "He is the eyes, ears and voice of the prime minister, " says Brajesh Mishra, who as former PM Atal Behari Vajpayee's principal secretary played a pivotal role during the six-year rule of the NDA government.
Chatterji will have to be all this and more. Handpicked by Sonia, not the PM, he will have to gain Manmohan Singh's confidence and establish the kind of rapport Mishra had with Vajpayee or before them, the legendary PN Haksar had with Indira Gandhi. Simultaneously, Chatterji will serve as Sonia's "eyes, ears and voice" in the PMO as he strives to restore badly needed equilibrium at the very top. Those familiar with the functioning of UPA 1 recall that Chatterji's presence in the PMO, first as joint secretary and then as special secretary, helped in ensuring that there were few major glitches during Manmohan Singh's first term.
"He kept Sonia informed at every step. The PM used him to sound out Sonia Gandhi, and vice versa, on critical decisions. Pulok Chatterji is probably the reason we didn't see as much dissonance then as there is today, " said a Congress leader who wished to remain unidentified.
There is little doubt that Chatterji's absence has been sorely felt in UPA 2, especially by Sonia. He left the PMO in early 2009, just before the Lok Sabha elections, to join the World Bank in Washington as India's executive director. It was a three-year term, which would have finished only in 2012. But for almost a year now, Sonia has been pressing for his return to the government, even though it meant taking the unusual step of pulling India's representative out of the World Bank before time.
Her anxiety to get Chatterji back stemmed from two things. One was growing evidence of the PMO's incompetence under the present principal secretary, TKA Nair. Matters came to a head as scandal after scandal erupted around the government. The escalating troubles over the 2G scam, the Commonwealth Games mess and the controversy over the appointment of ousted Chief Vigilance Commissioner PJ Thomas (which set off murmurs about the stranglehold of a parochial "Mallu" lobby within the government) were blamed on Nair's poor administrative skills. He was not hands-on enough, nor did he keep a watchful eye on critical matters as events threatened to spin out of control.
But Sonia had also begun to feel the absence of information. Although there is a weekly core committee meeting between Sonia, the PM and senior government ministers, at which important decisions are discussed, she no longer got deep backgrounders like she used to when Chatterji was an integral part of the PMO. Her political advisor Ahmed Patel could not fill the vacuum left by Chatterji because he is not part of the PMO and therefore does not have an insider's information of what is going on in the government.
It speaks of the widening gulf between Sonia and the PM that getting Chatterji back was an uphill task. He was to have returned as cabinet secretary. This was the reason KM Chandrasekhar was given an unprecedented fourth year in the post. But when the time came to move Chatterji's appointment file, the PMO raised all kinds of objections including a warning about demoralisation in the bureaucracy because several officers would have to be superceded to accommodate him. Sonia backed off because the move coincided with the legal controversy over Thomas and she did not want to risk setting off another storm. But those around her were convinced that it was Nair who had scuttled the move to protect his own position.
It was a temporary victory. Now, Nair himself is out, having been forced to make way for Chatterji to take over his job. The PM is obviously attempting to give him a soft landing by appointing him as advisor with the rank of minister of state. But effectively, Nair is being put out to grass because he is unlikely to have access to important files. It remains to be seen whether the PM can wangle a governorship for him, given the party's hostility and Sonia's own doubts about him.
Chatterji's chief advantage is that he is a discreet, low-profile, unfailingly polite person of unimpeachable integrity. A quintessential bureaucrat, who is a throwback to a bye-gone era, is how a colleague described him. He is also totally loyal to the Gandhi family with which he has been associated since 1980 when V P Singh, as UP chief minister, picked him out to look after Sultanpur district under which the Amethi parliamentary constituency falls. He can, therefore, be expected to nudge the government to follow a Congress agenda and fulfill promises made in the party's election manifesto.
Many in the Congress see Chatterji's appointment as the start of a process of preparation to showcase Rahul Gandhi for the next parliamentary polls. But even if he succeeds in the more limited objective of restoring the equilibrium between Manmohan Singh and Sonia so that there is some coherence in governance, he will have done a great service to his two bosses.
arati. jerath@timesgroup. com
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